How Green Is Apple’s iCloud?

Apple’s iCloud will boost adoption of cloud computing – but questions remain about the energy efficiency of the project, says Peter Judge

For consumers, Apple’s iCloud announcement this week is simply another way to move music and movies around, sharing content between all the devices they love.

For the IT industry, there is something more significant happening. Apple has been selling digital content for a long while – now it is selling access to content which it stores in a massive data centre. Amazon and Google have similar offerings and argue that cloud offerings just give users a new place to store content they have already paid for.

Data will move to the cloud

More significantly, putting content in the cloud has so many benefits that it is almost certain to expand massively. Users have long since come to terms with the idea of buying digital content instead of physical disks – the cloud gives them a place to make sure it doesn’t get lost – everyone gets 5Gbyte, and it is also is available wherever they are.

That is a no-brainer, and everyone expects a massive expansion in the storage and processing required by this sort of service – Apple has created a new data centre for the purpose in North Carolina, whose 500,000 square feet and 2.28Mw power commitment make it one of the biggest in the US.

It is also one of the world’s dirtiest, according to Apple’s long-time nemesis, Greenpeace. The environmental campaigner has a campaign on data centre energy use, and has taken on Facebook over its Oregon facility, which uses non-renewable electricity, taking out TV ads in the tate which ask it to stop using coal-fired power by 2021.

Greenpeace has criticised Apple for pumping more data round in the cloud for some time, and has now pointed out that North Carolina has “one of the dirtiest generation mixes” in the US, as it relies on coal and nuclear power (although nuclear power does not create significant greenhouse gases, Greenpeace does not regard it as green because it produces radioactive waste).

Efficient data centres can still be dirty

Facebook cried foul when Greenpeace declared war on it, because its data centre is one of the world’s most efficient. It then followed up with the Open Compute project, which shared the customisation that Facebook has commissioned on its servers, so others can get equally efficient results.

Apple is not likely to do anything so open – though it did show pictures of the inside of its data centre, which reveal a fairly standard state-of-the-art approach to efficiency, using hot and cold aisle containment, with equipment by HP, NetApp and Teradata – according to blogger Stephen Foskett.

Apple should certainly account for its energy choices and its carbon footprint. However, in the end, the responsibility will come back to end users who adopt its services.

Users have a responsibility

The fact is that mechanisms simply don’t exist to ensure people pay for the damage they do to the environment. In fact, market mechanisms tend to enforce the opposite. If Apple moved to more expensive renewable electricity, and passed the cost on to consumers, they would all move their data to cheaper, dirtier servers.

We back Greenpeace’s call for Apple to clean up its act – but more so, we urge consumers to think twice before using more data, in a mode which may have a higher environmental cost.